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A Short History Of Medicine

“Medical grade” leeches sold on a street market in Turkey

Photograph by Phil Zeltzman, DVM, Dipl. ACVS

06/21/2010 - When Clients Twist My Arm

06/07/2010 - We have met the enemy and he is us

05/24/2010 - Do You Want to Retire Someday?


"Doctor, I have an earache."

2000 B.C. - "Here, eat this root."

1000 A.D. - "That root is sacrilege; say this prayer."

1850 A.D. - "That prayer is superstition; drink this potion."

1940 A.D. - "That potion is snake oil; swallow this pill."

1985 A.D. - "That pill is ineffective; take this antibiotic."

2000 A.D. - "That antibiotic is artificial; here, eat this root!"

This brilliant story was relayed to me by Karol Mathews, a board-certified criticalist and professor of Emergency and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Guelph vet school (Ontario, Canada). She, in turn, had received it from a physician in Islamabad, Pakistan, who probably got it from someone else.

It is interesting how we seem to rediscover ancient remedies that actually work. For example, sugar and honey have been scientifically proven to help with open wound management.  They have antibacterial properties, including against some multidrug-resistant bacteria.  Karol Mathews has written extensively about their use*.

Sugar’s antibacterial activity is mostly due to its high osmolarity.  Honey kills bacteria through acidity (pH is around 3.6) and the liberation of tiny amounts of hydrogen peroxide.

Both sugar and honey enhance debridement, granulation and epithelialization of open wounds. In addition, they are excellent ways to quickly deodorize necrotic wounds.

Similarly, using medical grade leeches helps with open wound management.  This is called hirudotherapy.

They were used over 2,500 years ago in ancient India, and in Greece during the fifth century B.C. under the guidance of our good friend Hippocrates.  Leeches were used for bloodletting – granted, a more elegant technique than using a good ol’ knife.

In the 1980s, when surgeons began to perform reconstructive surgery involving skin flaps and grafts, they rediscovered the creepy creatures’ capacity for removing stagnant blood.  The suckers decrease swelling in the skin and help with venous drainage.  In turn, this improves healing by allowing oxygenated blood to reach the skin.

And last but not least, medical-grade maggots have been used since antiquity to debride open wounds. It is called maggot therapy. We have accounts from Mayan Indians and Australian Aboriginal tribes who used them successfully.

Let’s give maggots more credit: they excel at eating dead flesh while preserving healthy tissues.  There are reportedly hundreds of human facilities where maggot therapy is used in the U.S. They are also used in veterinary medicine, mostly in horses it seems, and occasionally in cats and dogs.

Surely, there are countless other examples of ancient but effective therapeutic modalities, starting with “natural” remedies and acupuncture.

It seems pretty amazing that such treatment were conceived centuries ago.  We owe our forefathers a debt of gratitude for being bold and adventurous with their freaky experiments.

* Karol Mathews, Compendium 2002

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